Off-Gassing: An Invisible Threat

(aka Out-Gassing, Outgassing , Offgassing)

I haven’t seen a consistent authoritative name for off-gassing. This is why I listed out-gassing, outgassing, off-gassing and offgassing in the title. At the time this article was written there was a Wikipedia post on the subject, but it appears currently appears unprofessional and not authoritative. I spoke with an engineer on the subject, and he used the term off-gassing.

Off-gassing of harmful chemicals from various sources inside our homes has become a subject of concern for informed consumers. Although there are many potential sources for harmful off-gassing, mattresses and pillows have become a point of focus. Although even the worst off-gassing mattress or pillow may only release trace amounts of chemicals, sleeping on the mattress in extreme close proximity for several hours a day may in some cases, cause severe negative health effects. Some consumers may wonder what off-gassing is and what the most common offending materials are.

Image: An oil refinery outgassing pollutants into the atmosphere.

Off-Gassing Definition

Outgassing is the phenomena of materials decomposing and releasing particles into the surrounding air. Moisture, sealants, lubricants, solvents, softeners, plastics and adhesives are the most common sources of outgassing. Even refined metals and glass may outgass depending on impurities present in the materials.

Outgassing is only a problem in closed environments such as in a space shuttle, or in an area with no circulation. Even nearly odorless materials, such as wood, or a rock may create an odor if kept in a completely sealed box for months or years. Out-gassing only becomes a concern when harmful substances are released into our atmosphere which may negatively impact our health.

Common Off-Gassing Materials

Materials that outgass carcinogenic or otherwise harmful by-products are a concern for humans, especially for young children with developing minds and bodies, as well as pregnant women. The list of potentially harmful out-gassing materials, just in our homes is suprisingly long. Some examples of potential outgassing sources are paint, mattresses, furniture, air fresheners, paint-thinner, bleach, or flame retardants added to cloth or furniture.

Even the wood frameworks of most homes contain potential sources of harmful outgassing. For example, both Plywood and Oriented Strand Board (OSB) contain forms of formaldehyde, a substance which the EPA has classified as a probable carcinogen for humans. Some forms of insulation, insulation, and other construction materials may also produce harmful outgassing.

Victims of our Own Progress: Growing Economies and Rising Pollution

Out-gassing has become one of many rising concern among consumers worldwide, as people have begun to recognize new harmful effects of industrialization. In some ways, the modern world has become of victim of its own progress. Cheap, lightweight, strong, and durable materials often require plastics, polymers, and various chemicals to form. The materials are used much more heavily in industrialized nations, which to some extent may account for the higher per-capita cancer cases in these areas (aside from pesticides and genetically modified crops).

Often materials are used heavily before the health risks of cancer or disease are completely understood. For example, lead-based paint and asbestos were heavily used throughout the USA for many years, until it was slowly discovered that these materials had both debilitating and often deadly side effects. Although asbestos and lead-based paint were both banned, there are still many potentially harmful materials that surround us in our day-to-day lives. Some may argue that o-zone depletion, radiation, and other types of pollution are more to blame than chemicals or materials off-gassing, but these factors are beyond the scope of this article.

Air Pollution is Likely A Driving Force is Increasing Cancer Deaths Worldwide

The pollution of our environment appears to be causing an increase in the number of cancer cases worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, cancer (especially lung cancer) is a leading cause of death worldwide, and the number of cases worldwide are growing substantially. This is an excerpt from the WHO website: “The number of global cancer deaths is projected to increase 45% from 2007 to 2030 (from 7.9 million to 11.5 million deaths)… In most developed countries, cancer is the second largest cause of death after cardiovascular disease, and epidemiological evidence points to this trend emerging in the less developed world.” ( It is clear the risk of cancer is substantially higher in developed countries, which are heavily producing carcinogenic byproducts due the net-effects of industrialized societies.

offgassing pollution
Image: Some attribute outgassing of combustion engine petroleum-byproducts to air pollution and cancer.

When thinking of the costs of industrialization and pollution, most people probably think of the industrial revolution, when the skies literally turned dark in heavy coal burning areas causing immediate and extreme harmful side effects. The byproducts of massive levels of coal-burning and fossil fuels released harmful chemicals, heavy metals, CO2 into the atmosphere causing severe and obvious health damage to those nearby.

The Hidden Cost of Industrialization

Ironically, completely undeveloped countries sometimes have longer life expectancies than people in first world countries. Perhaps living in a hut made with all natural materials and eating locally grown completely organic (and fiber rich) foods with no pesticides is somewhat under-rated. Although we have been able to create substantially cleaner environments with less bacteria, mold, and dust, and we have found ways to mass-produce cheap and often processed foods, these advancements have come with some deadly hidden health costs (cancer, heart disease, etc.). Perhaps we should not be surprised that there is in fact a price to pay (health risks) for our cheap, lightweight, durable chemical based materials, and pesticide filled foods upon which we have built our society.

Although current pollutants are perhaps less obvious than those during the days of the industrial revolution, they still pose deadly and to some extent, unknown future threats. Many of our present day pollutants are deadly, even though very few short term effects are clear: chemicals, pesticides, genetically modified foods, heavy metals and other toxins released into our environment all pose threats to our health. As technology advances, we have been able to identify these threats and begin to address them one by one.

Life is Priceless

The popular movement towards renewable energy, green construction, and organic products are based on our recognition that life itself is priceless and that the quality of our lives is profoundly effected by what we eat, drink, breath, and even where we sleep. For most of us, our scope of control is limited by our immediate homes, and families. As consumers there are many things we can do to improve the quality of our lives and improve our environment, even within the space of our own home. Often, choosing organic or environmentally friendly solutions are much more expensive on the surface. However, many consumers have started recognizing that often non-organic, non-environmentally friendly alternatives often have hidden costs which can’t be expressed on a price tag.

go green
Image: There are many ways we can go green and help preserve the environment.

Things we can do

For those of us who can afford environmentally friendly solutions, there are many things we can do in our homes and communities. When painting your home, you might consider using low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound Paints). When choosing the type of carpeting you will use, you may also look for organic, low outgassing carpets. We can change the way we eat; recent news reports have been citing studies which now conclude that diets which are heavy in animal proteins (meats) create an increased risk of cancer (aside from cardiovascular disease related risks). You can go to your dentist and get your amalgam fillings removed (a known source of mercury). You can also choose a organic mattresses and pillows made of natural materials that will not off-gass harmful chemicals.

Everything Counts

Although many ‘experts’ may claim that each of the above individual measures may have little or no effect, I would venture to say that the net effect of making many positive environmental changes is substantial. There are substantial number of very unhealthy people in our society which doctors cannot diagnose; and some people have found simply changing their diet or their mattress had profound positive effects on their health.

Off-Gassing Part 2

Mattress Off-Gassing has been the subject of several independent studies which now claim this is a primary cause for SIDs in children, as well as a cause of severe allergic reactions in some adults. Learn more about the carcinogenic flame retardants they are now adding to mattresses as well as a few solutions on how to protect yourself and your newborns.

2 thoughts on “Off-Gassing: An Invisible Threat”

  1. I always thought off-gassing was something a little more personal. I didn’t realize it could be a scientific term.

  2. I’m reading this after removing a tile floor and finding the 54 year old glue underneath smells just awful. I am not sure what’s worse and now wonder if this should be re-encapsulated before putting a floating floor over it…

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